SNOW is falling in that mysterious gentleness so unlike rain!


There was a news story the other day, about a man whose hobby is catching snowflakes on pieces of glass coated with a special substance which keeps them from melting. He examines them under a microscope, chooses the most unique, manages with another process to colour them and then photographs them.

The pictures are astonishing images of the not-visible-to-the-naked eye tapestry of ice-crystal beauty, an example of the intricate weaves of beauty the Beautiful One Himself has woven into the basic fabric of creation.

Before beginning to write this evening I stood in the gentle snow and let some of those tiny vessels of beauty fall upon my face, profoundly aware that the Beautiful One chose to manifest Himself in our flesh, chose for Himself a human face, chose also to remind us that we can, with our eyes, always see the beauty of His Face whenever we look upon the face of any human being.

To see the beautiful Face of Jesus, to see Jesus, is to see our Father. [Jn.14:9]

SUDDENLY events can occur which transport us from what has become familiar, ordinary, indeed in a sense a false-godlike serenity, that when they happen we can experience an inner trauma which rattles us so deeply even our very faith can be shaken.

I had no sooner written about seeing Jesus and the Father [Jn.14:9], when such an experience occurred in my life and for almost a week I was, by necessity of circumstance, living out of my briefcase with no settled place to finish this sabbatical.

Suffice to say what occurred happened to a friend, involved violence against their person and my intervening to obtain them a place of safety, in the process of which I then became the target and my spiritual father discerned satan was afoot and since finishing the sabbatical is clearly the will of God for me, best I relocate.

The Bishop agreed to the offer of a confrere and so I am now no longer in that southern city of factories but in a more northerly one. I am to live here for the remaining four months.

The advantage, which most consoles my heart, is the ground floor chapel where Jesus lives in the Blessed Sacrament and where I can spend time with Him as often as I want.

I must admit that there was a strange, — I almost wrote premonition but that is not correct, rather there was granted to my heart a mysterious awareness as I began this chapter that soon there would be an attack and I was not to worry, all would be well in the end.

Indeed, on my travels over the past week, a dear woman friend, not knowing I have been writing this very manuscript, begged me to write such a work and within the hour a dear, newly ordained, priest friend made the same supplication.

Thus, as Weigel reminds us in his seminal work on Pope John Paul II, this truth uttered by the Holy Father: …in the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences…[da]

Since in a few days I am to finish this and then begin my work on the second manuscript, on the priesthood, how wonderful to be living in a rectory where Jesus lives under the same roof in the Blessed Sacrament. I can bring each page before Him.

BEFORE THOSE events I was beginning to write about my seminary years. It has come to my heart to write about that experience as with that of my monastic years and those with The Community.

I have found over the years, often in books, articles, most assuredly, sadly, in conversation with priests across the generations, there seems to be an overly negative collection of memories of seminary life.

It’s part of this culture of blame we live in which has infected even the lives of priests.

For me seminary life was essentially a joy.

Certainly there were stresses, sufferings, struggles, but then why not?

The grace I was given was a profound awareness that being a seminarian, at the time I was in the seminary, was my vocation in that moment.

True, being in the seminary was preparation for fulfillment of my vocation to be a priest, but all ‘vocations’ are within the universal vocation which is that we are created to be children of the Father, disciples and co-heirs with Christ, living temples of the Holy Spirit, open wide to His activity of transfiguration, sanctification, divinization.

Seminaries are not perfect institutions which meet all the physical, emotional, spiritual needs of seminarians; not all professors are orthodox or holy; not all confreres either. Seminaries are where, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, men are formed to surrender to the sacramental action of the Holy Spirit, not just on the day of our ordination and configuration to Christ Priest, but every moment of our lives.

My duty of the moment, when I was in the seminary, was NOT to become the greatest theologian, liturgist, canonist, nor become a clerical administrator, rather it was to do my best to surrender to the Prime Teacher, the Prime Former of my being, the Holy Spirit, and to sit at the feet of the Mother of all Priests and learn from her how to do as she did, love and serve the Lord Himself through loving service, of sacramentally most of all as a priest, my brothers and sisters.

I frankly found all of the courses fascinating, from Sacred Scripture to Church History to Liturgy, Sacraments, and so forth.

The pastoral experiences in parishes, working with the poor, teaching children catechism, all were fuel to the fire burning within me to become a priest-servant of the people of God.

Granted, I was no fan of examinations and tried where possible to choose courses where a major paper replaced written exams. Failing that I’d try and choose ones where it was an oral rather than a written exam. In both cases I was moving from my strengths as a writer and orator.

The fact that we lived in the same house as Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament was also a great joy. I loved the Divine Office, still do, and, of course, Holy Mass, which I now as a priest can celebrate every day and it remains the greatest joy of my life!

If there was a common denominator I found, and treasure, from among the professors and seminarians, indeed even among the cooks, cleaners, office staff, the religious sisters who worked there, it is that virtually all shared a firm belief in the treasure and importance of the sacramental priesthood.

Not everyone made it through those years of study and formation. Indeed it is a truism commonly spoken when someone would leave of their own accord, or even be rejected at evaluation time, a twice yearly ordeal we all sweated through, that: “The best guys leave.”

I say a truism because, like all platitudes, it articulates, in this instance, a fear, that is: “ If they got rid of him what chance have I got?”

In reality no vocation has to do, per se, with the mere external talents of any person. Talents are given generously by the Holy Spirit to everyone.

Vocation has to do with call and response.

He calls, we respond.

Our response is an act of trust that He will provide all the grace, which is all the mature and holy use of talent, needed to fulfill the vocation He has called us to and we have said yes to.

This call and response occurs constantly in every moment of our lives.

There is, of course, the initial call and initial response, but, as in marriage so in priesthood, in all vocations, there is the very real necessity in every moment in Him to begin again, to in every moment say YES!

To my heart, then, the essence of the seminary experience was the action deep within my being of the Holy Spirit, the true Teacher and the One who configures us to Christ, in the case of men called to the priesthood this configuration is a sacramental reality, not as some reward for having passed final exams, gained a degree — but as fulfillment, sacramentally, of Christ’s promise not to leave us orphans.

The priest, not because of his studies but in the reality of the sacramental activity of the Holy Spirit, is configured by the Spirit IN PERSONA CHRISTI.

Seminary life then should generate humble, holy men, servants of the disciples of Christ.

All else is secondary to this formation towards humility and holiness, itself the work of the Holy Spirit and thus our word for, our prayer, for all seminarians should be seek only of Christ all that we need and doing only/all that pleases Him. [Hb. 13:20,21]

While it would be untrue to claim the seminary was exactly as described in the decree Optatan Totius of the Second Vatican Council on priestly formation, nonetheless the result of my seminary experience, and in a most particular adjunct grace, my continued association with The Community, especially the wise teaching of my spiritual father, was as prayed for by the Council Fathers who decreed:

Major seminaries are necessary for priestly training. In them the whole training of the students should have as its object to make them true shepherds of souls after the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, teacher, priest and shepherd. Hence, they should be trained for the ministry of the Word, so that they may gain an ever increasing understanding of the revealed Word of God, making it their own by meditation, and giving it expression in their speech and in their lives. They should be trained for the ministry of worship and sanctification, so that by prayer and the celebration of the sacred liturgical functions they may carry on the work of salvation through the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments. They should be trained to undertake the ministry of the shepherd, that they may know how to represent Christ to men, CHRIST WHO ‘ DID NOT COME TO HAVE SERVICE DONE TO HIM, BUT TO SERVE OTHERS AND TO GIVE HIS LIFE AS A RANSOM FOR THE LIVES OF MANY’ [ Mk.10:45; Jn.13:12-17], and that they may win over many by becoming the servants of all [1Cor.9:19] {db}

The mystery of suffering, the purification and redemptive mystery of the Cross, is, because such was the reality for Christ and therefore is necessarily for all His disciples{Mk.8:34}] was not absent from my years in the seminary.

The greatest suffering of that period was to occur around the death of one of my sisters and the subsequent attempt by satan, through the actions of a seminarian, to discourage me from priesthood.

It would not be the last time satan would mount such an attack, as is evident by the events around the writing of this very chapter!

At the beginning of summer break after my first year, my sister phoned one day from the military base where she lived with her husband and children. She asked if I could meet her at the main cancer institute.

I had known for some time that she had cancer and for some time it appeared the surgery and chemotherapy had arrested the disease.

I met her the following evening after the phone call at the cancer institute’s guest house. She revealed to me she had not much longer to live, asked if I would be there when the time came, made a few other requests, and then we spoke of our childhood, life since then, God and life after death.

When the time came for us to part, until I should get word the end was near and would travel to her home, I walked out of the institute into the now dark summer night.

I sat on a bench near a bus stop, my being in the throes of a type of grief not experienced since the death of my grandmother some four decades previous.

Shock had gripped me.

Anger seethed, rebellion beckoned.

What kind of a God would call me to this vocation and then tear the very fabric of my heart through this horror which was devouring my sister?

I wanted to run from that bench and plunge myself into some kind, any kind, of instant gratification: booze, sex, rage, it really didn’t matter.

Instead I walked across the street and bought a pack of cigarettes, figuring, in the immediate at least, it was the less destructive gratification.

Then I went down into the subway, boarded the first train, rode around for a while until the shock lessened, at which time I switched to the right train and headed back to the seminary.

I’d been hired to work there over the summer cleaning rooms between the various retreat groups’ coming and going while the students were away. At the same time I was taking summer courses in subjects as diverse as medical ethics and comparative mysticism, wherein the prayer traditions of the various world religions were studied.

I was glad to be busy as I waited for that dreadful call I knew was coming.

Early in the fall, when we had returned to the seminary program for second year studies, the call came and with the rest of my family I made the long trek to the military base where, with my sister’s husband, children and friends we began the long vigil.

After what seemed like months, but which was actually only a couple of weeks, the strain of the deathbed vigil was taking such a huge toll on all concerned the night of my birthday, as I stood at the foot of my sister’s hospital bed, I begged the Father for one gift only, that she be taken home to Him.

Early the next morning she died.

I preached at her funeral.

Then next day I returned to the seminary.

Posted on my door was a note from a fellow seminarian containing within it Xeroxed copies of pages from a book in which were footnoted copies of stolen letters from me, years before my conversion, to a pro-gay ‘catholic’ group.

The seminarian’s note suggested if I did not want this information passed on to the Cardinal I should leave the seminary.

WALKING NEAR the parish church this afternoon I chanced to look up towards one of the chimneys, out of which spewing steam rose as the heat was condensed in this deep freeze weather we are having. Huddled on the rim of the chimney were two pigeons, doubtless keeping warm in the escaping heat.

My heart was thrilled to see them, to see also a fulfillment of the Lord’s words sheltering the sparrows, comforting us in our struggles, reminding us we are important to Him. [Ps.102:7-14; Lk. 12:24]

I removed the seminarian’s signature from the note. Took it, after going through my files, with copies of the original letters and went to the Rector.

I explained the situation to the Rector and that I had confirmed the originals had been stolen from the offices of the people I had sent them to, showed him the section from the book where they were quoted and informed him that someone had threatened to go to the Cardinal if I did not leave the seminary.

The Rector said he would handle things and get back to me.

Within a couple of weeks he informed me the Cardinal had said that while I need not leave the seminary immediately I should seek another diocese and transfer after that to another seminary.

The Rector said not to worry he would help me find another diocese and seminary, and indeed he helped me put together an application. At my insistence the offending material from my past was included; for it seemed to me openness was the best way to go.

I knew my past.

My present, by His grace, was not my past.

By the end of the academic year however I was still without a diocese and could not return to that seminary the following fall for the beginning of third year.

The combination of un-availed grief over my sister’s death, of the stress of dealing with the assault from that book which distracted me from grieving, and confusion over the certainty of my vocation, with the apparent end of my seminary training, took its toll as I found prayer difficult, found it extremely difficult to refrain from chucking everything and return to my pre-conversion lifestyle and attitudes.

Summer came.

I was taking courses in pastoral care and Islamic studies, trying to be faithful to my formation even though it seemed a pretty crazy thing to be doing when, come the fall and the opening of the academic year, it appeared I would be without a diocese, still unable to return to the seminary, would be also homeless and jobless.

August came.

Many friends were praying for the intervention of Our Blessed Mother, she who is the Mother of Priests in particular.

A Bishop called from out of the blue, told the Rector he had heard of my plight from another bishop in Rome. If I could come and see him that weekend he would consider my case.

At the same time arrangements were made for me to live in a house of studies of a religious order so my studies would not be interrupted if this bishop accepted me.

I packed and traveled to his diocese, was interviewed and told he would first discuss the matter with the Priest’s Senate and then give me his decision.

Summer courses were over and I traveled to The Community for a week’s rest and a visit with my spiritual father who reminded me to trust Our Blessed Mother.

Just after her feast of the Assumption word came from the Bishop: I was accepted.

…sanctification consists of enduring moment by moment all the trials and tribulation it brings, as though they were clouds behind which God lay concealed… …He directs our lives from these shadows so that, when the senses are scared, faith, taking everything in good part and for the best, is full of courage and confidence. ….However mysterious it may seem, it is in order to awaken and maintain this living faith that God drags the soul through tumultuous floods of so much suffering, trouble, perplexity, weariness and ruin. ….Nothing is more noble than a faithful heart that sees only life divine in the most grievous toil and peril….the instinct of faith is an uplifting of the heart and a reaching over and above everything that happens. [dc]

There still remained a couple of years of study, and, placement in a parish in the final year after ordination as a deacon.

During the remaining time I would learn profound lessons about social justice as a perhaps well intentioned desire to serve the poor, even more profoundly, see the sacerdos magnus, the great priest, Pope John Paul II himself revealing how to be a priest-shepherd when he visited the country.

These were the years in the universal church when the extreme forms of liberation theology were all the rage, even in the seminary. Since myself, and many of the younger men too, had been involved as laymen in the struggles against the war in Vietnam, racial justice, justice for the poor, the anti-nuclear war movement, and other liberation groups, this passion carried over into seminary life. Often the faculty would invite leaders in the various movements to lecture to us.

Sometimes, such as when a Rabbi who worked with survivors of the Holocaust and some of the men and women from the camps themselves spoke to us we were pierced to the depths of our souls. The teaching of Vatican II in NOSTRA AETATE, its righteousness and urgency, came to life as we opened our hearts to this latest mystery of the pilgrimage through history of the Chosen People, our elder brothers and sisters in faith:

Indeed, the Church reproves every form of persecution against whomsoever it may be directed. Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by the religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism levelled at any time or from any source against the Jews. [dd]

“The Jewish religion,” John Paul said, “ is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain sense is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.” [de]

Some of those involved in the issues of the day had a more deleterious effect on the seminarians and this, combined with other issues well known to contemporary Catholics resulted in the visitations of seminaries by Vatican officials, the Synod on the Priesthood and subsequent document seeking to reform seminaries.

None of this occurred in my day and yet, frankly, especially in the area of the extremes of liberation theology, I became, for a time, caught in the web of excessive activism.

Not that those were not dangerous years of potential nuclear holocaust, along with the gradual crumbling of the communist bloc, and other world events, and without failing to mention what was first called the ‘gay-flu’ but by those years had become indeed the horrific pan-epidemic called AIDS.

I recall one Holy Week when, and this is not atypical of activism gone awry in a Christian heart, some faculty, students, religious from various orders, with our protestant ministerial student counterparts, all got the notion there was no better way to celebrate the mysteries of our Redemption than to spend the week in a fasting prayer protest outside the gates of the main manufacturer of a particular type of weapon, rather than participate in the very liturgies we were being prepared to be the ministers of!

We would walk, we seminarians paired with members of a mendicant order, up and down along the chain-link fence praying for hours on end.

Mid-week there was an explosion at the plant.

Someone had bombed the place.

The next night we were there again, walking alongside the bombed plant praying when suddenly guards appeared with vicious dogs, police, some in plain clothes, swarmed us, guns and clubs at the ready.

As they ran towards us we formed a circle and continued to pray the Divine Office out loud and just as they were upon us, clubs at the ready, police vans pulling up, sirens bleating. They stopped as if they had hit a wall.

An officer in full riot gear approached and asked who was in charge and the senior priest said he was.

“What the hell are you nuts up to?”

“We’re praying.”

“For what?”

“An end to violence.”

The police silently withdrew.

However the next night a call came into the seminary from a friend at a radical catholic newspaper I used to write for, warning the order had gone out and anyone known to be in the peace movement who might be connected in any way with the bombing was being rounded up, along with files, documents, etc.

I got a couple of my classmates and we went to the offices of the paper, for some of the staff had recently been in communist countries, and indeed already some of the staff had been rounded up by the police, and we helped cull files and get rid of anything that might be used to discredit people.

Later that night I went into the seminary chapel, actually it was by then early morning, and sat before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and meditated upon His arrest and trial.

My heart knew then I was going to be ordained for everyone: the weapons builders, weapons users, those pulverized by the weapons, police, crime victims and perpetrators, for everyone.

The preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for everyone since the slum dweller is certainly poor, but how immense, ultimately, is the poverty of the slum lord.

We had been taught a narrow and self-serving use of an excerpt from Pope Paul VI’s famous encyclical Populorum Progressio as justification for priestly participation in the extremes of liberation theology. We had been regaled with tales of priests bearing arms side by side with the peasant soldiers in Asian and Latin American revolutions:

We know, however, that a revolutionary uprising — save where there is manifest,                     longstanding tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country…[df-1]

That part was hammered into us…but it is a distortion to leave out the Pope’s urgent warning about just what, as so many tragic histories of nations show, revolutions actually produce:

..new injustices, throws more elements out of balance and brings on new disasters. A REAL EVIL SHOULD NOT BE FOUGHT AGAINST AT THE COST OF GREATER MISERY. [df-2]

I remembered also a vital lesson taught me by a simple man, a truly good man, during the height of the Vietnam War in the late sixties.

He was a farmer, living on a small, rocky bit of land in the hill country, the poorest part of the nation.

I was there in midsummer, helping to bale hay, and as the sun began to set behind the hills, the day’s work done, we sat on the weathered wood planks of the porch.

The man brought out some cold beer.

I’d enjoyed a simple but hearty meal with him and his family.

The children were playing among the stacked bales in the field in front of the house, his wife was in the kitchen doing the dishes and singing.

The farmer rolled a couple of smokes and passed me one.

We sat there, satisfied with sweat, food, dwindling sunlight, sounds of crickets and children’s laughter.

Silence bathed that masculine moment with the at-rightness of all.

The war, where friends of mine were dying in the paddies and jungles, the war whereof I and others were lost in a confused struggle between anger at the insanity and compassion for our friends, occupied my mind even in the midst of that idyll.

Finally I broke the silent moment with a simple question to the farmer: “What say you about the war?”

He took a long draw on his cigarette, sipped some beer, looked over his shoulder towards the torn screen door of the house, then looked towards the field, now filled with evening shadow, at his children playing: “I sit here,” he said in soft tones filled with a pure man’s authority, “and I thinks, over there, in that Vietnam, there’s a man just like me. He’s sore, but it’s a good soreness ‘cause he’s worked hard his land. He sits, like me, with another man, looks about his land, watches his sons, hears the wife singin’. His belly’s full ‘cause he worked hard and she be a fine cook.”

He paused for what seemed a long time and I watched his tired watery eyes. Then he looks at me hard.

Not judging hard, penetrating hard, like a father trying to press deep into his son vital wisdom.

He spoke with authority. “Now this man, the one like me. He loves the wife and his sons and he don’t hate me and I sure don’t hate him. So I asks myself, why do they want us to kill each other? That be my thought on the matter.”

Towards the end of the last year in seminary the Pope came to our country and since two friends of mine were co-ordinating events in our area they asked if I would help out at one of the sites.

I readily agreed and was issued various passes for the different sections of the site, including the so-called papal enclosure and a security badge to be worn, I was warned, at all times.

The night before the Pope was to arrive at the shrine site I arrived just after midnight and hundreds of people were already there, along with a contingent of police, soldiers, Red Cross volunteers, site volunteers from surrounding parishes, media people and the papal advance team.

I went into the shrine and met my priest friends who were naturally a little stressed wanting everything to be just so for the Pope.

The air, in the classic yet true phrase, was electric with expectancy.

About two in the morning it began to rain and we were concerned over the plight of the now thousands of pilgrims getting soaked by the cold rain.

Suddenly across the valley lights began to come on in the village houses, even in farm houses up in the hills.

Sometime later headlights could be seen moving towards the sight and then flashlights, bobbing like fireflies approaching the shrine.

Dozens of local men, women, and children had been awakened by the rain – by angels – made coffee, sandwiches, turned big plastic garbage bags into impromptu rain-gear for the pilgrims huddled in the rain!

The next morning the sun beat down and dried the mud rather quickly it seemed to me and warmed those hardy souls who’d been there all night.

The Holy Father arrived by helicopter and went into the shrine to first see to the sick and elderly, then came out to the main site.

I was within a few feet of where he was to pass by heading to the makeshift altar, but with my particular clearance was free to move anywhere I wanted.

The pilgrims who’d endured the night’s cold and rain pressed against the rope barrier, having the best vantage spot.

The Pope drew closer and another unexpected event happened.

Those who’d been there all night looked behind and if seeing anyone who was short, like an elderly person or a child, or just plain short, they gave up their nightlong saved great viewing spot to the person unable to see above the crowd!

Everyone wanted to see the Pope, be touched by him.

I was transfixed by his radiance and frankly don’t remember a word he said.

As I walked among the people some hours later after the Pope had left I was constantly touched, physically touched, by people to the point where I wondered if they were going to tear my cassock or surplice they literally were grabbing.

But everyone was smiling, radiant with joy.

Their touch was actually a holy gesture, for though not yet ordained they assumed I was a priest and simply stated, some of them: “It is good to touch you Father, it is a blessing.”

Later in the residence of the religious priests who care for the shrine we watched video of the just happened visit.

One of the priests was a consultant to the movie industry for films having priest characters and so forth in them.

This priest suddenly shouted: “Look at him! Look what he’s doing! What a shepherd! We’ve been doing it all wrong! Look at how he touches them and let’s them touch him. We’ve been doing it all wrong.”

Then I understood why so many had wanted to touch me.

Then I remembered all the touching of Jesus in the Gospel.

I knew then that as a priest I would always allow people to touch me, touch my vestments and would always hold any person needing to be embraced by Christ.

Some weeks later final exams came and I was called by the Bishop to be ordained a deacon.

Called to the order of service, for all priests must first be consecrated by the Holy Spirit as servants of the poor.

My seminary days were over.

INTROIBO AD ALTARE DEI [Ps.42/43: III: 4] All is grace!